Copy Editing in the Digital Age: Or, Why Mastering your Native Language is Still Important

First things first: I HATE the term grammar nazi (and really, all “blank-nazi” permutations).

I hate that it implies people who write poorly don’t deserve to be corrected. Anyone who had the good fortune to attend grammar school and high school should have at least a basic understanding of grammar. If European schoolchildren halfway across the world can manage to learn three languages, surely you and I can master one.

Of course, I also hate how it also seems to downplay the actual horrors and crimes the Nazis committed against humanity. If all the Nazis did was sternly reprimand people for word usage and punctuation, I’d feel differently. But that’s for another post.

The more often I copy edit, the more I feel like grammar is only a small, small part of what I do. Sure, I look for typos, stray commas and sentence structure errors, but if that was everything, any well-educated person with a relatively competent grasp of the English language could edit. As I have learned, that simply isn’t the case.

DJNF's 2011 Mizzou workshop participants and faculty

Above are the fantastic people I got to work with during my Dow training. I have a feeling they would appreciate what I am about to detail.

Copy editors are, first and foremost, journalists, just like reporters and photographers. And like reporters and photographers, our skills are still relevant despite a shift to web-first media. People who write for the web can make just as many mistakes as people who write for print. Hence, the world will always need copy editors. Microsoft word might be able to correct spelling, but it doesn’t know anything about newsworthiness.

On a typical day proofing pages or editing copy, I look for more than just misspelled words. Some considerations I make while editing:

  • Obviously: are there grammar mistakes? This can include punctuation usage, sentence structure, spelling, capitalization, tenses and more.
  • Does any of this make sense? Are there any logical leaps? Can I coherently follow what is being said to get the message of the story?
  • Names, numbers and proper nouns. Do numbers add up? Are names that are repeated the same throughout? Am I fact- and accuracy-checking all names and places to make sure they exist/are spelled correctly?
  • AP Style and local style. AP has an entry on almost everything. I have learned to look up most, if not all, nouns and proper nouns I come across to make sure they fit with AP’s recommendations. Every paper also has their own local style for what AP doesn’t cover. Some even make exceptions to AP Style. Rather than memorize all of this, I treat my stylebook as a tool. As long as I know how and when to use it, I am set.
  • Design Elements. The production manager in me is always scanning a page for bold/italic text, missing rules, picas, adequate white space, funny-looking fonts and misplaced articles.
  • Headlines, c-deks and cutlines. Are headlines in the appropriate style (no articles, present tense, etc.)? Do c-deks and cutlines include more information to entice the reader? These are all visual cues to engage readers in a page, and it is my job to make sure they are accurate, in the correct style and expand upon what is in the headline. Sometimes, these are the only elements a reader will look at, so we want to make sure to give them as much information as possible.

Most Importantly: The Big Picture. 
(So big, in fact, it gets to move off the bulleted-list).

This concept applies to many areas. I am always on the lookout for attribution, strange-sounding quotes, inaccuracies, newsworthiness, questions and ways a reporter can improve/flesh out/further explain something in a story. I try to consider if any words could be offensive or if there are double-entendres or analogies that could distract readers from what the story actually means. I want there to be no question about my accuracy as a reporter or an editor, and I want to ensure that readers actually understand what they are reading.

Copy editors get a bad rap for being obsessed with grammar. Truth is, we aren’t. Or at least I’m not. I am not a better journalist or copy editor because I know what a dangling participle is, or because I can correctly identify the object of the preposition. Sure, those things do help and are important. I can tell you that nothing frustrates me more than an editor or a reporter who does not have a basic command of the English language and cannot (or will not) learn from his or her mistakes. Honestly, grammar-policing is not the focus of my job, and I abhor picking up the slack for someone who ought to know better. Like the Little Mermaid said, “I want more.”

Having been a reporter and a designer, I try to incorporate all my journalistic experience when I am editing. No matter what hat I am wearing in the newsroom, my ultimate goal is to make sure I am clearly and accurately providing the reader with information he or she wants/needs to know. That ranks far above comma usage in my mind.

Is this difficult? Yes. Can it be downright repetitive being so darn clear all the time? Most certainly. But for me, it really is a small price to pay to be accurate and looked at as a reputable journalist. Whether I am reporting on the school budget and trying to eliminate school district jargon in my story, laying out a page or clarifying facts and figures with a reporter, I always try to remember that what I am doing is an important service to the public. If I am creating or putting through content that is not informative or clear at its core, then I am not doing my job.

Sorry for the extremely long-winded post again. My (unrealistic) hope is that some of you will walk away with a burning desire to brush up on your grammar. Indulge me on this one, folks.

At the very least, for the love of God, learn to run a spell-check and get rid of oxford commas.